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Deepa Mehta

Director, Screenwriter
(b. January 1, 1950 Amristar, India)

Deepa Mehta occupies a unique place within the Canadian film industry. One of the few filmmakers to have a truly international outlook, Mehta has shot and set films in both Canada and India. In “Deepa Mehta as Transnational Filmmaker, or You Can’t Go Home Again,” from North of Everything (2002), one of the most comprehensive articles on her career, Jacqueline Levitin calls Mehta a “transnational” filmmaker. Mehta herself refers to her films as hybrids. A humanist who has often attacked intolerance and prejudice, her films and her outspoken distaste for hypocrisy have made her one of Canada’s most controversial directors.

Mehta was born into the film industry as her father was a film distributor in India. After finishing a degree in philosophy, she immigrated to Canada in 1973, where she formed Sunrise Films with her first husband, Paul Saltzman. Mehta worked on a number of television series before turning to short documentaries. In 1991, she made her first feature film, Sam and Me. Nikhil, a young immigrant played by Ranjit Chowdhry (who also wrote the script), is forced by family obligation to care for Sam, an aging Jewish man who has been more or less abandoned by his children. When they become too close, both families intercede.

Sam and Me introduced Mehta’s characteristic motifs and interests. Intolerance and prejudice are set against the need for understanding and the realities of a multicultural society; and though Mehta invariably gives priority to individual needs and (in particular) desires, she also acknowledges the pull — and also, the comfort — of tradition. Sam and Me also criticizes Canadian society for its superficial devotion to multiculturalism, establishing Mehta as a filmmaker who was unafraid of exposing hypocrisy. (At the same time, she also criticized funding agencies for their refusal to back the project because it didn’t fit their definition of a “Canadian” film.) Sam and Me is told through the eyes of an innocent; in subsequent works, Mehta would continue to express links between pain, wisdom and experience.

Sam and Me won an honourable mention for the Camera d’or prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and following that, Mehta was offered several plum projects. George Lucas recruited her in 1991 to work on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles television series and she was hired to direct Camilla (1994), starring Jessica Tandy and Bridget Fonda. Mehta was unhappy with the way the film was edited and swore to devote herself to her own projects in the future.

Mehta’s next effort, Fire (1996), remains her most controversial. The first installment in a planned trilogy to be shot in India, Fire recounts the relationship between two neglected and oppressed sisters-in-law, Radha and Sita (played by Indian stars Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das). Their growing attraction to one another and their eventual liberation comes at a cost: the disruption and eventual destruction of the joint household they live in. Though Mehta clearly sympathizes with her heroines, she acknowledges how custom and tradition also imprisons the men. The film was met with violent protests when it was released in India in the fall of 1998 and was eventually withdrawn from distribution.

Earth (1998), the second part of the trilogy, examines the sectarian strife following the departure of the British and the partition of India. Told through the eyes of a young girl – and inspired in part by stories told by Mehta’s mother about partition – Earth is staunchly realist, much like its predecessor, but it is marked by a more ambitious scope and may be Mehta’s finest work to date.

In 2000, Mehta returned to India to shoot Water, the final installment in her trilogy. But even before shooting began, fundamentalists rioted and destroyed the sets, going so far as to burn effigies of Mehta and her cast. Disheartened and unsure if she would make another feature, Mehta returned to Canada where she made Bollywood/Hollywood (2002). A buoyant romantic comedy complete with musical numbers in the Bollywood tradition, the film represents a break with her previous work, both in terms of style and atmosphere. Decidedly upbeat, the film focuses on a young Indo-Canadian millionaire (Rahul Khanna) whose family pressures him to marry. He meets a young woman (Lisa Ray) in a bar, and assuming she can’t be Indian “because no self-respecting Indian woman would ever be alone in a bar,” he asks her to masquerade as his fiancée.

Bollywood/Hollywood is remarkably consistent with Mehta’s other work in theme, commenting on the situation of many Indo-Canadians: caught between family and tradition on one side and Western culture on the other. It also proffers the most complicated and most fulfilled notion of identity in her work to date, acknowledging the possibility of the co-existence of tradition and individual need.

Mehta has consistently worked with the same crew (including cinematographer Gilles Nuttgens,  editor Barry Farrel, line producer Anne Masson, and her partner and producer David Hamilton) and she often casts the same performers. Nandita Das is featured in both Fire and Earth and was cast in the original version of Water; Ranjit Chowdhry is featured in all of Mehta’s films except Earth; and Rahul Khanna appears in Earth and Bollywood/Hollywood. Stylistically, Mehta’s work is rigorously designed, featuring very particular colour palettes. Her visual approach is restrained with little or no camera movement. She has consistently cited Satyajit Ray as her key influence — an influence that is evident in both her manner of filmmaking and the humanist philosophy behind her work.

The Republic of Love (2004), an adaptation of Carol Shields’ novel (co-written by Mehta and Esta Spalding), is a love story focusing on the on-and-off-again love affair between late night radio host Tom Avery (Bruce Greenwood), a man who has never had any luck in love (as his numerous exes can attest to), and museum curator Fay (Emilia Fox). Boasting a large international cast (Claire Bloom, Jan Rubes, Gary Farmer, Kristin Thomsen, Rebecca Jenkins, Jackie Burroughs, Martha Henry, and David Fox as Fay’s father) the film is a romantic fantasy, presenting Toronto as a wintry playground. But it is also suffused with a forlorn sense of loss and disappointment. (Unfortunately, it didn’t enjoy the popular success of Bollywood/Hollywood.)

In 2004, Mehta made a final attempt to make Water, shooting it in Sri Lanka under the utmost secrecy. Set in India in the 1930s against the backdrop of Gandhi’s rise to power, the film follows three women from different generations – child bride Chuyia (Sarala); the deeply conflicted Kalyani (Lisa Ray); and Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) – all of whom have been effectively imprisoned in an ashram for widows after the deaths of their husbands. The fragile peace of the ashram is disrupted by the arrival of the indefatigable Chuyia, who is far too young to calmly accept her lot, and by a burgeoning love affair between Kalyani and Naryan (John Abraham), the son of one of the village’s wealthiest men. Heartbreaking and driven by exceptional performances (most notably Sarala, whom Mehta had to direct largely through gestures since she spoke neither English nor Hindi), Water is a study of inequity, corruption and neglect. The film was Mehta’s most successful film to date both financially and critically. It was released by Fox Searchlight in the United States and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Water also won three Genies in 2006 (for Giles Nuttgens’s cinematography, Mychael Danna’s score and Seema Biswas’ performance) and several major awards at the Vancouver International Film Festival. It was named one of Canada’s Top Ten Films of 2005 in a panel set up by the Toronto International Film Festival.

In 2006, Mehta made an intimate, smaller scale documentary about domestic violence entitled Let’s Talk About It and followed that with one of her most intense, visceral and downbeat works, Heaven on Earth (2008). The film recounts the arrival of Chand (Bollywood star Preity Zinta) in Toronto where she’s supposed to meet her new husband, Rocky (Vansh Bhardwaj), and his family. From the outset, it’s clear that there’s something very wrong with the family and the relationship. (Rocky is far too close to his mother, who accompanies the pair on their honeymoon.)  The frustrated and put-upon Rocky soon begins to take his frustrations out on Chand, who has no recourse but to retreat into fantasies and myth. A potent mix of naturalism and magic realism, Heaven on Earth is one of Mehta’s most unsettling and powerful works. (The film was named one of Canada’s Top Ten films in TIFF’s annual listing.)

In 2012, Mehta completed her epic film version of Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prize winning novel, Midnight’s Children which covers decades of modern Indian history beginning with Partition and ending after the martial law period of the 1970s. The film was adapted by Rushdie himself (who also did the voiceover narration) with  an international cast featuring Seema Biswas; Shabana Azmi; Rahul Bose; Charles Dance; and Zaib Shaikh. Voted on to TIFF’s annual Canada’s Top Ten list, the film also received eight nominations at the 2013 Canadian Screen Awards (the revamped Genies) including Best Picture. It won awards for Best Supporting Actress (Seema Biswas) and Best Screenplay (Salman Rushdie).

Film and video work includes

At 99: A Portrait of Louise Tandy Murch, 1974 (director)
Travelling Light, 1986 (director; producer; TV)
Martha, Ruth & Edie, 1987 (co-director with Daniele J. Suissa, Norma Bailey; producer)
In Limbo from Inside Stories, 1988 (actor; TV)
Danger Bay series, This Little Piggy,1989 (director; TV)
Danger Bay series, Hijacked,1989 (director; TV)
Danger Bay series, Ancient Spirits,1989 (director; TV)
Sam & Me, 1991 (director; producer)
The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles series, Benares, 1993 (director; TV)
Camilla, 1994 (director)
Fire, 1996 (director; writer; producer)
The Young Indiana Jones: Travels with Father, 1996 (co-director with Michael Schultz; TV)
Earth, 1998 (director; co-writer with Bapsi Sidhwa; producer)
Bollywood/Hollywood, 2002 (director; writer)
The Republic of Love, 2003 (director; co-writer with Esta Spalding)
Water, 2005 (director; co-writer with Anurag Kashyap)
Let’s Talk About it, 2006 (director)
Heaven on Earth, 2008 (director; writer; executive producer)
The Forgotten Woman, 2008 (writer; executive producer)
Cooking with Stella, 2009 (co-writer with Dilip Mehta; executive producer)
Carpet Boy, 2011 (executive producer)
Midnight’s Children, 2012 (director)

By: Steve Gravestock